COLUMN: Sharing the love

With love in the air on Valentine's Day, TSD brings you the top 10 things to love about the future of LSU sports in 2013.

Being that it's February 14th and all, it's not just another Thursday. It's Valentine's Day.

Surely by this point your wife, girlfriend or significant other has told you as much. (If this is your first notification and in you're in a relationship, stop reading and go buy something.)

But, assuming you've already squared away the chocolate-y, flower-y goods, read on for the top 10 things to love about major LSU sports in 2013, not only for the end of this spring semester but for the upcoming fall's slate of athletic events as well.

In no particular order …

1. Anthony Hickey's pursuit of steals history

LSU's sophomore point guard, who amazingly missed a few games and didn't start several others due to discipline at the beginning of the season, is still on track to do some special things taking the ball from others. Hickey does that quite a bit.

The nation's current leader in steals per game (3.37) has 64 total thefts in 2012-13, compared to 69 in a full season as a freshman a year ago. He won't catch the NCAA single-season record holder (Desmond Cambridge of Alabama A&M in 2002 – 160 steals in 29 games, 5.5 per), and I'm not sure anybody ever will. But he could realistically catch LSU's record holder for a single season: Darryl Joe, who had 93 steals in a season during his tenure in the mid-to-late eighties. Hickey is also on pace to break Clarence Ceasar's school record for average in a season, 3.0, a mark Ceasar set in 1994 and 1995.

2. Johnny Jones bringing back offense to LSU basketball

The following may not sound like much, but it's a sign of things to come when more talent floods the PMAC. The Tigers are averaging 70.4 points per game this season on the hardwood, the most since any LSU team since the 2008-09 squad which featured several future pros (Marcus Thornton, Garrett Temple, Chris Johnson) and won the SEC. In between, the closest LSU came was 65.5 ppg.

Consider that Jones' team is accomplishing that this season while shooting only 42.2% from the field, and it lets you know the pace is faster and more shots are at least going toward the rim for the purple and gold. This will translate to bigger and better things when the three top-shelf signees (Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey, Tim Quarterman) are the ones hoisting the shots.

3. Aaron Nola taking over Kevin Gausman's role as team ace

Losing a top-five pick in the MLB Draft is never a good thing, but it's impossible not to love the upside Nola, a Baton Rouge native, brings to the table for Paul Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn. In his freshman season on the mound, Nola, who quickly rose from the bullpen to grab a weekend rotation spot, started 16 games, winning seven and fanning 89 batters against only seven walks in 89.2 innings.

The guy throws strikes. And for his brilliance in year one, Nola was named a first-team freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game. In 2013 he will take over as Mainieri's Friday (or Thursday) night starter, assuming a role he was tailor-made to fill. A lot like the player mentioned in No. 5 on this list, his sophomore follow-up is very highly anticipated and no amount of success would surprise anyone in Tiger Nation.

4. Getting to watch Raph Rhymes hit again

The transfer from LSU-Eunice set the world of college baseball on fire in 2012, leading the country in batting average at a ridiculous .431 (100-of-232). That mark is also the highest in school history and served as the first time an LSU player topped the nation in that category. Pretty heady stuff for a program as decorated as LSU's.

Rhymes is the ultimate singles hitter, never getting too greedy or trying to settle for anything more when he can simply lace a pitch into the outfield grass. That tendency should serve him, and the Tigers, extremely well in the player's senior season, especially now that speedsters Chris Sciambra and Mark Laird are positioned ahead of him in the lineup. Rhymes may not be able to duplicate .431 again, but there's a distinct possibility he could be the most feared hitter on a better, more versatile lineup this spring.

5. Jeremy Hill's sophomore season on the gridiron

After being forced out of what should've been his freshman season in 2011 battling a sexual assault charge, Hill burst onto the scene in 2012 in a delayed rookie debut … only, fittingly for him, it took a few games. The Redemptorist High product received just 13 total carries in the Tigers' first six games, 10 of which came in the blowout victory over Idaho.

From there on out, however, Hill was unquestionably LSU's best back. He carried 129 times in the team's final seven games (18.4 totes per game) for a total of 684 yards (97.7 yards per game) and 10 touchdowns. And he single-handled iced wins against South Carolina and Texas A&M. What can he do for an encore? The sky would seemingly be the limit with Spencer Ware and Michael Ford gone and Alfred Blue still making his way back from injury.

6. A pair of redshirt seniors returning for one more go at linebacker

It doesn't feel like that long ago I was writing a 2011 season preview that bemoaned the fact LSU would have a sub-par linebacking corps with Kelvin Sheppard having moved onto the NFL. That's exactly how it turned out, too, with John Chavis opting to go with more nickel, dime and Mustang packages than ever to mask an obvious weakness. Two players I previewed at that point who were on the cusp but not quite ready: Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones.

Fast-forward to 2013 and not only are they ready, but LSU's darn lucky to have them around for their fifth seasons in TigerTown. Barrow exploded in 2012, notching an amazing 104 tackles, fifth in the SEC, while playing second fiddle to stud Mike ‘backer Kevin Minter. Jones, who was robbed of all but one game last season due to an academic snafu, returns in 2013 as easily one of the fastest players in Chavis' ultra-fast defense. The duo, along with a precocious group of second-year players, ensures that linebacker will be a real strength of the ‘D' this fall. How about that for a turnaround at the position?

7. A chance to dream higher about the LSU offense

And at this point it is just that – a chance. But it's still at least something tangible for Tiger fans to grasp for heading into the spring and then the dog days of summer. The imminent hiring of Cam Cameron as LSU's offensive coordinator is intended to breathe life into an offense that's greatly and publicly struggled to achieve balance and consistently do anything through the air.

Cameron is a proven developer of young quarterbacks, a promising sign for the future when looking at players like Stephen Rivers, Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig. He also aligns quite well with Les Miles in terms of a run-first principle, but he's shown a willingness to take chances in the vertical passing game. If Miles can breathe easier handing the reins over to Cameron and the latter is able to re-adjust to life on the collegiate level, the jokes LSU's offense has been the butt of recently could soon be on opposing defenses trying to stop the Tigers.

8. The swan song of LSU's resident wrecking ball, J.C. Copeland

Of all the players Cameron is set to inherit, I'd put my money on this guy being his favorite. Copeland's story of converting from defensive tackle is well-traveled at this point. So too is the fact that when he first started entering games at fullback in 2010, Copeland had a difficult time actually finding (and remembering) the place where he was supposed to leave a hole.

Well, two full seasons of demolition later, No. 44's found those areas repeatedly, and he's left uncountable defenders and holes in his wake. This guy's led Stevan Ridley, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Jeremy Hill into the line time after time and rarely skipped a beat with injury. I'd say the guys on that list have enjoyed a decent level of success during their stays in Baton Rouge. Copeland is one of the biggest reasons why. Catch him while you can in 2013, LSU fans, because when he's gone, you'll feel like you did the season after Quinn Johnson left – desperately wanting him back.

9. Watching young talent blossom along the defensive line

Not everyone will share this opinion, and that's okay, but there's little that gets me more excited in sports than watching youngsters spring to life when given opportunities early in their careers. Given their druthers, most fans would probably rather have juniors and seniors every single season who are battle-tested and have been in the system. But if the talent is right, give me the newcomers. It makes it all the more thrilling to witness (think Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid in 2010 or glimpses of Kwon Alexander in 2012) and it provides incredible hope for the future.

In 2013 LSU will have several candidates who fit that description and will have big opportunities for Brick Haley on the D-Line. That list includes Danielle Hunter, Frank Herron and Tashawn Bower at end and Quentin Thomas, Greg Gilmore and Christian LaCouture (and possibly Maquedius Bain) at tackle. Hunter is a likely starter while the rest will have a chance to crack the four-man rotation at each respective spot. They won't be tasked to do it all as others like Jermauria Rasco, Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson will be around, but they'll have spots to shine in supporting roles. LSU fans should be excited to watch the growth occur right in front of their eyes.

10. The construction of what could be LSU's finest recruiting class ever

Okay, so this is cheating a little because the players would technically comprise the Class of 2014 and aren't on campus yet. But we will get to watch their senior seasons on the prep level unfold in the fall of 2013, and I predict it will be the highest level of attention Tiger fans have ever paid to high school prospects in a given year.

The four five-stars from the state of Louisiana are the headliners and for good reason. RB Leonard Fournette and OT Cameron Robinson are considered the top players in the country at their position by Scout. DE Gerald Willis and S Laurence Jones are deemed the second-best in the nation at theirs. And then there are highly coveted prospects like WR Malachi Dupre and TE Jacory Washington, already an LSU commit. All that's before you get outside the Pelican State. So strap in, people, because there's plenty to love and follow about what's coming down the pipeline.


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